- The 30-day comment period for the U.S. Department of Education's proposed accreditation rules closed Friday, with around 200 new comments submitted and continued opposition over the pace at which the changes have been brought forward.
- Among the comments is a request from the National Student Legal Defense Network (NSLDN) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) for a public hearing on the proposed final rule, which they say is required under the Higher Education Act (HEA).
- The Ed Department has until Nov. 1 to review each response and issue the rule for it to take effect in 2020. However, critics of the process say the department may be cutting it too close.
In their comment, NSLDN and AFT contend a public hearing is needed because the department "has proposed a drastic restructuring" of how it recognizes accreditors and the standards to which it holds them, resulting in "sweeping" changes ahead.
Although the department has held public hearings, those pertained to the rules' development. The groups write that the HEA requires the department take additional steps to provide a hearing to discuss the final product, during which the public "can react, present testimony (oral or written) and evidence and respond to comments that have been submitted during the process."
Concern the department is moving too swiftly in its effort to bring about the new rules has followed the rulemaking process.
Although rulemakers reached consensus after multiple negotiation rounds earlier this year, some critics of the process claimed it was disorganized and that consumer advocates weren't adequately represented.
Some observers also are concerned the department is attempting to implement its rules prematurely. Last month, the department updated an existing handbook for accreditors with the stated goal of providing "clearer, more concise requirements" for the information they should submit. However, critics of the move told Education Dive at the time that the handbook conflates the new rulemaking priorities in several areas.
The department released its proposed rules in June, opting for a comment period on the shorter end of what's allowed.
A lawsuit isn't out of the question by those trying to stop the rules' implementation, Antoinette Flores, associate director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, told Education Dive.
"The question here really will be what are the legal avenues available that create grounds to sue, because on things like (the) borrower defense and gainful employment (rules), the lines were a bit more clear," she said. "On this one, not so much."
Flores said there's a "valid question" as to whether the department has provided sufficient evidence or justification this time around to be compliant with the HEA and the Administrative Procedure Act.
The latter argues that the changes "must be viewed in the broader context of this Department's actions," which they write indicate "an unwillingness" to hold accrediting agencies accountable and a reluctance to provide defrauded students with relief. They also question the legitimacy of the consensus reached during the rulemaking process.
Others are more optimistic. In its comment, the Council of Regional Accrediting Commissions, which represents seven regional accreditors, aimed to "generally reinforce" its support of many of the rule's provisions. However, it called out the department for sections that "inaccurately criticize" accreditors on "issues related to innovation, respect for institutional mission and transfer policies."